Aug 29, 2011

Writing Lessons Learned From Social Media

Like a good PR or elevator pitch, an effective tweet, Facebook status update or Google+ post is compelling, finely-crafted, tightly-edited and impossible to ignore.   Social networks are a great place to test messages and hone your writing to the sharpest of points.

I started to think about the relationship between the improvements in my writing – most noticeably, in my new found abilities to edit myself and tighten the screws on my own phrasing – and the corresponding growth and engagement of my audiences in social networks.   Simply put, if you pay attention to what you write, you’ll quickly learn what works – and what doesn’t – with your audience.   And there’s more to that equation than simply subject matter.  The structure of your missives – along with the language you select, will dictate the outcome.

Facebook:  Be interesting, and pithy

Among the friends and family I interact with on Facebook, descriptive posts that are slightly off-beat generate the most interest.   When I gabbled nonsensically on Facebook when our house was robbed recently, my rambling message received zero (!) responses.   Are my friends and family heartless?  No.  But like any other group, boring messages generate zero traction.

On PR Newswire’s Facebook page, the vibe is a little different.  The crowd there appreciates the content we curate for them, but before they will follow the links we suggest, they need to be sold on why doing so is worth their time.  I always take the time to give my take on why a link I’m suggesting to them is interesting or useful.   That said, brevity is important here, as well.   A rambling paragraph simply doesn’t work.

Twitter: Edit mercilessly. Less is definitely more.

On Twitter, my followers respond to short, crisp tweets.  Seventy characters or less seems to be the sweet spot, and those fifty characters have to sum up the value of the link I’m suggesting. When writing tweets, I challenge myself trim and tighten my messages, distilling the tweets as much as I can.  Here’s a look the most popular tweets (in terms of the number of time the link I attached was clicked) I’ve sent this summer.  As you can see, all are well under the 140 character/space limit:

  • With a single tweet, Lance Armstrong’s PR machine blunts ‘60 Minutes’ segment. (79 characters/spaces)  
  • Google shelves real-time, and my take on what it means for #PR (63 characters/spaces)
  • Fewer than a dozen companies rely on the web to meet disclosure. Here’s why: (77 characters/spaces)
  • Sharable content is the SEO king. (36 characters/spaces)
  • SEO is really public relations. (32 characters/spaces)

I’ve also found it’s helpful to allude to your own take on something you’re sharing, and that it’s entirely possible to do so with one word, or even simple punctuation.  Appending a word such as “Really?” is an easy way to convey skepticism or an element of personal disbelief.  Adding a simple exclamation point in brackets (!) mid-phrase is a brief way to express your surprise.

LinkedIn:  Give the people what they want, and be transparent

LinkedIn offers all sorts of opportunities for brands.  Some of the most valuable, in my experience representing PR Newswire, are found in the Answers and Groups sections, in which members pose and answer questions, and discuss industry issues.

It should go without saying that these discussions are not the place for the hard sell.  However, that doesn’t mean that someone representing a brand can’t interact with others while also positively promoting the brand.  The key is simple – give the people what they want, which most of the time is a straight answer.

I’ve found that directly answering a question – and being up front at the beginning that I work for PR Newswire – can be a great way to share information, start a dialogue, and even win business.    Often, company insiders are in the position to share unique insight or details about a service or industry that others following the conversation appreciate.  However, one must be careful to give the people what they want.  Listen to their questions, and give straight answers.  It’s about them, not you.

Applying the lessons learned:

I know my writing skills have improved since I became active on social networks and started tracking the results of our efforts in social networks on behalf of the PR Newswire brand.  In particular, I’ve noticed:

  • The language used in a post/tweet/update plays an important role in attracting audience attention (and response.)
  • The lessons in brevity, editing and interest learned in crafting effective social posts also translate to headline writing.
  • Relentless editing is an absolute requirement for effective writing. I’m now a merciless editor, with decreasing patience for extraneous language and superfluous ideas.
  • Format content for the wired reader: make it easy to scan and share. I make use of bullets and sub-heads to make content easy for readers to scan, and to highlight phrases that are easy to tweet.  Case in point: the phrase that started this bullet point is 71 characters, and would make a great tweet.  In fact, I think I’ll use it to promote this blog post later.
  • The more time you spend in social networks and the longer you observe what sort of content sparks conversation, the more finely tuned your own story-radar becomes.  It’s easier for me to spot interesting angles for blog posts and press releases now that I’ve spent so much time immersed in networks with my PR peers.

From a professional standpoint, involvement in social networks offers a bevy of opportunities, beyond improving one’s writing.   You can test messages and campaign concepts, floating messaging to your social audiences, and observing which reverberate, and which fall flat.   By listening to social conversations, you can start to zero in on not just the topics of interest to the group, but the very words that are more likely to attract and hold attention.   I would even argue that you can increase the stickiness and uptake of the messages you craft, as you start to spot – and highlight – tweetable ideas or concepts within the content you produce.

What have you learned from your experiences communicating in social networks?

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

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